New report paints grim picture of Israel's Holocaust survivors

Nearly one-third of estimated 189,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel are poor, new report says

As speeches were being polished in preparation for Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies in Israel this week, figures published Monday about the nation’s survivors spoke volumes.

An estimated 189,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel today. The average age is 83. Two-thirds are women. Forty die each day, adding up to more than 14,000 a year.

And nearly one-third of the survivors are poor.

Israel’s national commemoration of the individual and collective hardship endured 70 years and more ago has been extensive; educational programs bring history to virtually every Jewish child from a young age.

However, as institutes, scholars and relatives race against time to document stories and testimonies, many Holocaust survivors in Israel are fighting a more immediate battle for a dignified existence in their later years.

In June, the government announced a massive support program to ease the financial hardship of survivors as they struggle with old age, medical bills and exasperating bureaucracy. A budget of about $1.2 billion over five years was announced to increase stipends and free medication for survivors, among other benefits.

“This isn’t just an amendment to legislation, it is an amendment of an historic injustice,” said then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who declared the program a national priority as it received approval from parliament.

But nearly a year later, Monday’s report indicates that the survivors’ situation by some measures has worsened.

According to figures from the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, 30% have forgone buying food products over the last year, compared with 19% the previous year. In addition, 25% have forgone medical treatment and 39% said they cannot live in dignity with what they have -- both figures up between 7 and 8 percentage points from the previous year.

An estimated 27% could not afford to heat their homes over the winter. Among those considered poor, a staggering 45,000 live below the poverty line, defined by the government as a monthly income of about $870.

Many of those in need are survivors who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. With neither pension nor family safety net, many live alone and depend on government aid.

In a radio interview Monday, survivor Dora Roth called the situation a shanda -- shame or scandal in Yiddish. “This is a disgraceful shame of all Israeli governments that will not give survivors enough to live their last years in comfort,” she said.

Survivor relief organizations say the government program has increased the stipends for many survivors, but Roth says nothing has changed. “Those who were hungry are still hungry,” she said.

The foundation has launched a five-year project called “Last Effort” to help survivors struggling with the system, hospitals and increasing loneliness. “We will help them today, because tomorrow will be too late,” was a slogan on the website of the nonprofit that was founded by Holocaust survivors nearly 25 years ago.

Where Israeli government and bureaucracy move notoriously slowly, volunteers try to compensate, their efforts boosted in recent years by the booming social media platforms.

One grass-roots organization, the Assn. for Immediate Help for Holocaust Survivors, has been using Facebook to mobilize a small army of volunteers to deliver donated care packages, drive survivors on errands, accompany them to doctor's appointments, do home repairs or even keep them company.

Another initiative has enlisted lawmakers and celebrities for an online public awareness campaign and has called a march in Tel Aviv for Wednesday, as Remembrance Day events begin.

Monday’s report found that one-third of survivors live on their own, nearly half are lonely and fear the Holocaust will be forgotten when all survivors are gone. Later in the day, 400 people responded to a call on social media to attend the funeral of Haya Gertman, a 92-year-old survivor who had no family. Most mourners reportedly were strangers.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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